Tok Pisin as a language of literature

Michael Dom – “Tok Pisin is underestimated and undervalued as an appropriate form of contemporary literary pursuit”


LAE – I am grateful for PNG Attitude’s support of Ples Singsing, a space for Papua Niuginian creativity, most recently by publishing my current series of Tok Pisin essays.

On Friday, Keith Jackson commented on Twitter that the series was also emerging as a history of the development of modern Papua New Guinean literature. This really hit home for me.

My intention was to highlight the utility of Tok Pisin as a national vernacular language which remains underestimated and undervalued as an appropriate form of contemporary literary pursuit.

In designing the series, it appeared to me that in a sense we Papua New Guineans had been brainwashed into a singular sense of inadequacy about Tok Pisin as a means of serious literary creativity.

Tok Pisin is one of our national languages, it is the main language of communication in daily life, it has wide currency in song, it is vital in the mass media – such as Wantok Niuspepa and on radio and TV – and of course it is much used in written communication between individuals and groups.

Nevertheless, these modes of use are not the same as the paramount arena of literature, the cultural structure where we tell our stories in our own way in a form that is meant to last.

To be sure, translation is a hurdle and Tok Pisin lacks the universality of English, but these are not good reasons and nor should they distract us from using Tok Pisin to form a significant part of our own literature.

The feeling of Tok Pisin – its words, its emotion, its nuances, its deeper meanings – is genuine and authentic to us as Papua New Guineans.

And so it is for others who know Tok Pisin and who have experienced PNG and know my people and one or other of our languages.

This is a powerful reason why I am so grateful to Ed Brumby for being willing and eager to torture and extend himself by translating my brutal paragraphing.

There are definitely ways in which Tok Pisin as a literary form has fallen short of where it needs to be, and that is also part of my starting a conversation on just this topic.

In storytelling, writers may work in a fictional world. This does not mean, however, that the words and the ideas or even the fictionalised facts are devoid of truth.

In some ways fiction can be more profoundly true than reality because it licences the author to travel beyond tangible reality into other zones intangible but no less real.

The essays I’m writing are a genre that enables us to discuss the writing that we appreciate is true to us as Papua New Guineans.

It remains an abiding pleasure for me to talk and write about what my fellow authors, essayists and poets produce in contemporary literature. For me, as a poet, the pleasure especially resides in the poems.

I approached the essays, three so far and two to come, by thinking of their structure and composition in Tok Pisin. I expected this to be of great challenge. To my surprise, it was not.

It is my hope that we modern writers of PNG can grow stronger by taking on the challenge of using our national vernacular, Tok Pisin, in creative writing.

Ples Singsing is moving on with this agenda to support and promote Papua New Guinean writers.

We look forward to meeting them all in our own powerful and expressive language

‘Vernacular Traces in the Crocodile Prize.’ An essay in five parts

Part 1 – PNG writing: Stop reminiscing. Start again, 6 January 2022

Part 2 – A pity so few of our poems come in translation, 12 January 2022

Part 3 – Let the writers of PNG rise again, 26 January 2022

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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